Unthinkable as it may seem, in 1964, DC Comics were giving serious thoughts to cancelling Batman. That’s right, the Caped Crusader. DC’s second oldest and second most well-known character was in line for the chop. Think for a moment of the difference that would have made to not merely comic history but television and films. If Batman had disappeared, what would DC be doing now, when comics about him make up what seems to be about two-third of their output every month?
The reason Batman was under consideration for cancellation was the usual one: falling sales. All comics sales had been falling since the end of the Second World War and the disappearance of the GI Market, exacerbated by the increase in other distractions competing for the kids’ time, such as television. The moral scares of the Fifties, whipped up by Dr Frederic Wertham and the Kefauver Committee didn’t help and the decision to adopt a Comics Code that practically stripped everything interesting out of comics’ access were all contributory factors.
But the real reason Batman was ahead of Dead Man’s Curve was his editor, Jack Schiff.
I don’t want to be overly critical of Schiff. By all accounts he was a good, decent editor, thoughtful and intelligent. But, like so many people at DC in those decades, his big problem was Mort Weisinger. Schiff edited Batman, Weisinger edited Superman. Say what you like about Weisinger, and many have, one of the kindest (and most printable) things being that he looked like a malevolent toad, he was a very good editor in commercial terms. But he was a man who sought to dominate everyone who was around him, establishing and playing on their weaknesses for no apparent better reason than that he could, and it fed into his urge for power.
Theoretically, Schiff was his more-or-less equal. If DC had ever appointed an Editor-in-Chief the choice would have been between those two only, and one of the best reasons for their not doing so was that the other would have resigned on the spot. But Weisinger, in addition to being a tyrant and a bully, was also a schmoozer when it suited his purposes, which it did with DC’s owners, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Leibowitz. Weisinger made himself amenable and indispensable to Harry and Jack. As was his wont, he continually denigrated anyone he saw as his opponent.
In Schiff’s case, this was in respect of his politics. Schiff was a political liberal which, in the McCarthyite Fifties, was suspicious in itself. Weisinger lost no opportunity to beat Schiff with this. He was a dangerous figure, a pinko, the House Red which, given that Donenfeld and Leibowitz were natural Republicans, was a serious slander. Only Weisinger could stay on top of him, make sure he wasn’t in a position to do any damage.
It had been like that for years. In 1948, under the influence of Bob Kanigher, Superman and Batman made their only active appearance in All-Star Comics with the Justice Society. Weisinger descended, screaming over-exposure, and it never happened again. Schiff wasn’t concerned about Batman, but he was bullied by Weisinger into making the same complaint.
So, when Weisinger was bucking the trend of decreasing sales by establishing an ever-wider Superman family, Schiff was pushed into doing the same for Batman. Instead of just Robin, there was Batwoman, Bat-Girl, Bat-Hound, Bat-Mite, in ridiculous profusion. Schiff hated it but he could do nothing about it. So he decided that if that was what they wanted, that was what they could have.
This led to one of Batman’s worst periods ever, from about 1957 to 1963, the era of the Science Fiction Batman, with endless stories about aliens, alien monsters, monsters, alien planets. Apart from the sheer cynicism involved, which took little account of quality issues, there was the plain fact that this was completely antithetical to the core appeal of Batman, the human crimefighter, tackling urban theft and murder. It was terrible, but Schiff’s answer was that he was only giving them what they wanted.
And so Batman’s sales figures were being driven down. Until DC started looking at them very nervously and contemplating the unthinkable. If it hadn’t been Batman, maybe the comic would have been cancelled without any further thought. But they were thinking seriously about it.
Before cancellation, a rescue operation would clearly be mounted and, given his record of success in reviving superheroes since The Flash in 1956, the obvious choice was Julius Schwartz. Schwartz was agreeable to switching round some of his editorial commitments with Schiff to take over both Batman and Detective.
There were conditions. Schwartz would bring over his top artist, Carmine Infantino, and would rely on his two favoured writers, John Broome and Gardner Fox, for scripts. The array of ghosts who worked under the name of creator Bob Kane would be reassigned, and Kane would no longer automatically have his signature appended to work he had had no part in creating.
Changes were made to the series. Catwoman, frozen out under the restrictive terms of the Comics Code, would return as an antagonist. The Riddler, a past one-off, would be brought in as a new regular villain. In answer to the charges raised by Wertham, that Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson’s home set-up was a ‘homosexual wish-dream’, Alfred was killed off saving the Dynamic Duo from being crushed by a humungous boulder and his place at Wayne Manor was taken by Aunt Harriet to add a feminine touch. And Batman’s costume was updated by the dubious step of adding a fluorescent yellow oval target, sorry, oval, around the bat-symbol.
But just go back and imagine. Julius Schwartz started working as an Assistant Editor at All-American Publications in the mid-Forties. Prior to that he worked as an Agent for SF writers including Alfred Bester and Ray Bradbury. The decline in markets for SF stories led to Schwartz seeking another line of work and it was Bester who told him of the vacancy at All-American.
If there hadn’t been that need, what happens if Julie Schwartz decides to stay an SF Agent. Without him, the Silver Age doesn’t start. There’s no new Flash, no new Green Lantern. No call to revive the Justice Society so there’s no Justice League of America. And nobody with a proven track record to take over and revamp Batman in 1964. If there’s no superhero revival, is there anyone to take on reviving Batman? Would another approach have been so effective?
After all, the Batman TV show started when Producer William Dozier saw a Schwartz-edited cover of either Batman or Detective featuring the Riddler that was so kooky he figured there had to be something in this. No Schwartz, no TV show. How many attempts would DC have made to set Batman back on his feet before they opted just to cancel him?
For that matter, without Schwartz to come up with the Barry Allen Flash, would there still have been comics at all? No Silver Age revival, no superhero renaissance. Was there anyone else to produce that effect without him? Schiff scored a success in Showcase with the Challengers of the Unknown, but they were brought to him by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, already developed, and anyway they were fully human. Weisinger scored with Lois Lane, but she’d been around twenty years and was just another wrinkle on Superman’s stable.
And of course, no Justice League of America and does Martin Goodman demand a group book from his cousin Stanley Leiber? Might the removal of Schwartz’s influence extend to eliminating Marvel Comics as well?
The ‘Great Person’ theory of history is usually a load of codswallop, but when it comes to comics, Julius Schwartz stands to have made enough a difference in so many directions that it is possible to look back and say, if he hadn’t taken that job at All-American Publications, would comics even exist nowadays?
At least we can take the positive that if that had been the way it happened, we wouldn’t have to put up with Film Critics moaning about Marvel Universe films.